Hidden Territory

Daredevil #26-40  (2001-2003)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (2011)

The male leads in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have suffered disgrace. They take on a mission in the aftermath because someone thinks they are the one man who can do the job, and it affords them an opportunity for redemption. To succeed, they must learn the identity of a grievous wrongdoer among a set of possible suspects. In Tinker, Tailor, there may be a traitor in the highest ranks of British intelligence; in Girl, there may be a murderer on an island inhabited by a reclusive family. The hero must find out who.

Tinker, Tailor presents the actual process of detection with a controlled flow of significant information, rather than a flood. The film adminsters facts in carefully measured doses. This makes a great deal of sense on a character level because the lead, Smiley, was previously within the fold. He’s familiar with the latest events, the key players were his colleagues, and he has a history with them. An expert in the trade, he knows what he’s looking for, and the audience is never made to doubt his competence. He spends the majority of the film leading a small team, who follow him without any pushback, and he moves inexorably forward toward the goal. He makes no wrong turns.

He is patient, as is the film, with almost as much effort made to verify there is a traitor as to uncover his identity. Each step, as a result, is sure, with next-to-no misdirection on the part of the film. Once discovered, information doesn’t change meaning; it provides a stone for a straight-forward path. When the nature of the traitor’s actions becomes clear, the protagonists set up a trap that is certain to work, and spring it. They capture him without danger. There’s no fuss to any of it, and as a result the “who,” the identity of the traitor, while presented as a moment with a certain punch, can only feel like an afterthought. There had been no prior “close calls,” no almost-interceptions, no roads traveled down that did not turn out to be the right way to go.

The traitor can’t even rightly be said to be the film’s antagonist, for all his importance. We’ve had no signs of his passing, no sense of his malevolence. Of course, the film has a villain, the Soviet spymaster, Karla, yet we never directly encounter him. The piece of information that the leads are seeking doesn’t have the effect of undoing a villain. It only has the effect of taking one of his pieces off the board.

This is not an accidental feature of a Cold War narrative, and Tinker, Tailor remains compelling entertainment in spite of itself. The appeal is in what the film suggests, what its atmosphere might make us recall and think about, and the glimpses at the characters, not in anything that actually occurs. And while nothing much happening in a narrative is quite alright, when the entire plot machinery of a film relies upon a single event, and the event has little in the way of satisfaction, it’s a problem. The film may believe that its story is more than a “whodunit?”, but that’s the story it’s telling, and the indifference toward actual mystery makes the film feel hollowed out.

While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also avoids recourse to more standard elements from the detective playbook, it grounds itself far more in tangible evidence. This is no surprise from its director, David Fincher, whose attention to detail pervades his works. On the pure volume of what it presents for our attention relevant to the investigation, the film dwarfs Tinker, Tailor. A few scenes strung together contain more information about the identity of the wrongdoer than the whole of the espionage movie.

This makes as much sense, in its way, as Smiley’s assured familiarity with the situation. The journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is a newcomer to the situation, assembling the available evidence for the first time. (Indeed, he’s behind much of the audience, familiar as they are with the film’s source text.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actually has a character much like Smiley, embedded in and intimately familiar with the relevant players, but it’s not the journalist. Rather than leading the investigation, the decent man in the midst of a lot of nefarious motives admits at the outset of the film that he needs a fresh pair of eyes, and hands things over to someone outside the fray.

This different relationship to the evidence, however, carries with it the same sure destination as Tinker, Tailor. We watch the work done to reach the final goal of unmasking the wrongdoer. This sure-footed approach toward knowledge is rare for Fincher. If Se7en depicted a detective story wherein the accumulation of investigation and evidence led nowhere, and the killer controlled the revealing of his identity, and if Zodiac dealt with the haunting hole at the middle of a mystery that can never quite be solved and never quite be let go of, either, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo exists in a world where there are answers one can reach with enough time and effort. Provided, of course, that someone hands you a few boxes of old documents.

Indeed, two people can reach those answers. For The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has Lisbeth Salander in the mix, as well. She has no analog in Tinker, Tailor or many other whodunits—she’s not seen as an available option for uncovering a mystery. Her connection to the information that needs to be arrived is indirect, her attitude almost clinical, even if her attraction to its aims is no less visceral.

Appropriately, given her novelty, we spend an hour and change before the two protagonists unite. Whatever else this provides to the film’s structure, it makes clear that Mikael & Lisbeth are separate forces. This makes all the difference when the film has both protagonists arrive at the answer to the central question by relatively independent means. We’re clearly in a world where a given destination can be reached by separate paths. (And where the vital evidence might actually be in the grasp of an intent viewer.) Information is somewhat more free here, looser. The film provides enough details that you can assemble them in separate ways, and unlike Tinker, Tailor, new revelations don’t only provide a step forward. They also allow for second looks, as what you learn, what the characters learn, can give up more later on than it did at first. This welcome instability works all the better with a villain who is far more of a presence, taunting the characters and providing a far more immediate threat to their investigation.

The differences in approach don’t mask that each film has a relatively similar structure, dictated by the one fact, an identity, which matters more than all others. There is the before, and there is the after. Yet both films seem less than satisfied that revealing the information provides real fulfillment for the audience and its narrative. They both have codas which last longer and contain more significant material than one typically expects.

The effort put into these accommodations suggest that a binary switch forming the centerpiece of a narrative structure might often prove less than ideal as a narrative climax. The mystery of an identity provides a great onrush of fascination and momentum. Competently deployed, viewers will not be able to let go of the desire for a solution. Yet the intellectual itch of needing an explanation isn’t enough on its own. An audience has to inhabit the feeling of needing to know with the same urgency as the protagonists, or else the uncovering will not provide the needed satisfaction.

This is all the more true if the characters themselves don’t find emotional release with the reveal. Characters, no less than people, don’t always know what they want. The plot architecture of an identity mystery, however, can provide only one release. The story has one card, and it’s a great deal of fun to play. The more a film locks itself into this whodunit structure, however, the more challenging the limitations on what it can, finally, reveal.

No less than the identity of a wrongdoer in a mystery, the “outing” of a superhero marks a kind of endgame from which there is no return. Creators go there continually, of course, as they must over decades of storytelling, but it will always eventually be reset through some contrivance or another. Costumed superheroes without their secret identities preserved are much like detective stories without mysteries; fertile ground, for a time, but bizarre territory. That bizarre territory, however, has quite a lot of potential, if one recognizes where one is. The game is already over, but the coda can last as long as you like.

The first fourteen issues of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Daredevil concern themselves no less than the two films with a central question of identity driving all of the action. Yet the end-point information comes in the first issues. Unmasking the concealed identity is a starting point, rather than set out in the distance as a destination. The reader, Matt Murdock, and a great deal of his friends (and some of his enemies) know that he is Daredevil. After only a few issues, a great deal more people know, and the whole city has been told, though they don’t know if they can believe it.

From Matt Murdock’s perspective, nothing threatens Matt or Daredevil’s heroism more than the certain confirmation of his identity. And it is Matt Murdock’s perspective that the reader anchors to, as the hero. Rather than driving forward by a furious need to know, his goal is to prevent any more people from learning for certain. He must deny, and obscure the truth, and in every way possible muddy the waters, so as to delay the inevitable. In every important respect it’s like watching the movie from the perspective of the traitor or the murderer, where the last piece of information, once known beyond doubt, means the end to their freedom. The lead’s desperation, brought home by every crack and cross-thatch of Alex Maleev’s line-work, comes across in every one of the early pages. We’re on the other side of the search.

While it would be possible, alternately, to situate the story with another character seeking Daredevil’s identity, the series contents itself with an interlude here or there, suggesting the strange narrative situation another perspective would afford. A street-level observer sees another superhero traipse into Matt Murdock’s apartment, and reads the next day that she foiled a villain with Daredevil at her side. This feels all the more strange because the comic depicts what sounds like a perfectly pleasant team-up story as just a newspaper headline. Everything in the world of the comic has started to look different due to one piece of information, and what once would have been the main action has moved to the margins.

Events play out more aggressively, too. People get killed because they knew, or because of what they did with the knowledge. Daredevil’s ability to operate as normal becomes jeopardized, as his priorities shift to make secrecy even more paramount. Rather than a progression of facts leading ever closer to the central mystery, one piece of information turns everything on its head.

The whole book, from its outset, thrives in this space. Information with evolving implications, obsessed over in Dragon Tattoo, come to play the role of the ephemeral, out-of-reach villain from Tinker, Tailor. Timothy Callahan, in an analysis of the book’s opening pages, relates how the “tabloid noise” mentioned by a gangster, Silke “become the main antagonist for this series. It’s not Silke himself who will be Daredevil’s major adversary, it will be the public, the press, the lack of privacy.” Information itself, and the mortal threat it poses, is the hero’s enemy. And it turns out he can’t beat it up in an alley.

Getting to a point like this takes lengthy groundwork, of course, and the effectiveness of a “whodunit?” as a storytelling structure is its ability to create clear and gripping stakes in short order for a one-off piece of entertainment. Yet when the option is available, spending time on the “after” rather than the “before” seems to me a far richer space. Think of the moments in “Mad Men” when the secrets of Don Draper come out into the open, and how profoundly unsettling this is to the character, how new it feels to an audience. The longer the strange times, the better, for the real interest in revelations comes after they break out into the light.

2 thoughts on “Hidden Territory

  1. Pingback: August Notebook | Accidental Jellyfish

  2. Pingback: I Want a Body | Accidental Jellyfish

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